There are many common nightmares and George Plimpton made a career out of one of the most universal. In the name of “participatory journalism,” a term he coined, he would humiliate himself in public. His specialty was sports. Plimpton pitched for the Yankees, was a quarterback for the Lions, and at age 50, played goalie for the Bruins. He would turn his experiences into successful books, which helped build his celebrity and possibly undermined his writing career. The enormously entertaining Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself does not give a complete portrait of the man, exactly. Close friends and family members would later admit he was a tough guy to know. Instead, the documentary offers a thrilling sense of a curious man who was always moving forward.
Directors Luke Poling and Tom Bean use archival footage, photographs, and interviews to give a sense of Plimpton and his effect on journalism. After floundering as a boy, he was a founding editor of the Paris Review, where he worked until his death. He published stories by Philip Roth, Jay McKierney and others. But among all those writers, Ernest Hemingway was the one who had the biggest influence on gun. Hemingway famously did not like interviews, yet he and Plimpton found mutual respect, and the participatory journalism efforts are partially inspired by Hemingway’s desire to live courageously.
No matter what the situation, Plimpton always seemed to stand out. He was tall and handsome, with a mannered New England accent. But no athletes had an ill word to say about him; they all admired his sincerity. It was only when Plimpton tried his hand at the fine arts – he had a bit role in a Howard Hawks film and performed with the New York Philharmonic – were his colleagues less than welcoming. Poling and Bean use Plimpton to make sneaky observations about the worlds he chose to inhabit. He was so comfortable with himself that any negative opinion would not be a reflection of him, but of the person making it.
In his personal life, Plimpton was more of a mystery. His wife and children talk about him with a combination of reverence and regret (he seemed to prefer lavish cocktail parties over a quiet evening with his family). Sometimes his contemporaries would wonder about the decisions he made, particularly when he started peddling everything from garage door openers to video games. In the hands of less charitable filmmakers, Plimpton would seem unceasingly self-involved. By framing his unusual life around the magazine and his insatiable curiosity, however, Poling and Bean partially justify major deficiencies. They get away with it because the man was just so damn charming.
Not many documentaries include rousing athletic footage and photos with literary royalty. This one, brimming with life and good humor, will appeal to everyone precisely because Plimpton is too bizarre to be made up.
Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself has its world premiere today at 8:30pm at the AFI Silver Theater. Buy tickets here!
Silverdocs is going on till June 24th. Check out BYT’s full preview here.